All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1979

Conservation or Confiscation?

Mr. Batten is a free-lance writer and consultant, residing in Sacramento, California.

Who owns the land and natural resources in these United States? The individual or corporation that holds title? Or does “society” own the land?

These are basic questions, yet largely ignored in the current debates over environmental problems and the use of natural resources. The final answers will determine what kind of a society we will have—whether that society will ultimately be one of individual freedom or one of centralized control of all facets of human activity.

The owners of property determine how the property is used. The owners of forest lands determine whether they will be used for the production of wood crops or for recreation, or some combination of both. The owners of the airwaves determine what is broadcast over them. The owners of printing presses determine what is printed.

To understand the issues involved, and where we stand in our search for answers to these key questions, it is important to look at our history, and see where we are today, and how we got here.

In any society at any time, there are currents and cross-currents trends and schools of thought that are contradictory. They can usually be grouped into broad classes: authoritarian and liberal. Here, I mean authoritarian as the philosophy that favors the concentration of power, and liberal as the practical philosophy of individual liberty.

In the preface of his five-volume history of Colonial America, Murray Rothbard wrote:

My own basic perspective on the history of man, and a fortiori on the history of the United States, is to place central importance on the great conflict which is eternally waged between Liberty and Power, a conflict, by the way, which was seen with crystal clarity by the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth century.’

British Mercantilism

Britain attempted to impose the mercantilist economic system on its American colonies. Mercantilism was based on the belief that the gain of one man or one nation must represent the loss of another and that the precious metals were the most desirable form of wealth. Mercantilism advocated the regulation of foreign trade in order to increase exports and to discourage imports—in other words, to create a favorable balance of trade.2 It was the purpose of the colonies to provide that favorable balance in order to benefit the merchants of the mother country.

The basic mercantilistic structure was built up in the Navigation Acts during the seventeenth century. But Britain was in no position to enforce them, so the merchants of the colonies ignored them.3

Though Britain sought to restrict the production of manufactured goods in the colonies, it imposed a network of subsidies and prohibitions in order to encourage the production of ship masts and naval stores. Probably the first attempt of governmentally-imposed conservation in North America was contained in the Massachusetts Charter of 1691. The charter reserved to the Crown all trees twenty-four inches and larger in diameter on the public domain.

By 1722, the cutting of any white pine trees in New England outside of township limits was prohibited, whether publicly or privately owned, except under license from the Crown.

During the French and Indian Wars, Britain established her army in North America, and when the war ended in the early 1760s, was ready to enforce the mercantilist laws that the colonists had ignored so blithely during a century of salutary neglect.

Writs of assistance were issued, which authorized customs officers to break into warehouses, stores and private homes to search for illegal goods. Then, in 1763, the Surveyor General of the Woods began to enforce the White Pine Act. Two thousand white pine logs were seized in western Massachusetts on the grounds that they came from trees legally reserved for the Crown. The colonists reacted by threatening to beat or assassinate the Surveyor General’s agents. Local justices of the peace refused to aid the deputies in enforcing the law.4

By that time, the colonists had had a taste of individual freedom and a free economic system. They were also beginning to absorb the ideas of John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other liberal writers. As Britain increased its efforts to enforce its mercantilistic policies, the resistance was also increased. Finally, in 1776, the colonists gave up all hope of being able to reconcile their differences with England, and publicly declared their independence.

Liberty had triumphed.

Constitutional Guarantees

The founding fathers set up a constitutional form of government which they believed would establish a nation in which the land belonged to individual citizens, the rights of the individual were guaranteed, and government was the servant of the people, to protect them and their property.

But, as John Philpot Curran wrote: “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”5

So, slowly at first, but rapidly in recent years, power has usurped human liberty. Entangled within the web of power, we see the threads of environmental concerns.

The first great age of conservation, during the time of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, dawned in a distrust of private owners as custodians of natural resources, and a distrust of the free market and its pricing system as the means of allocating resources.

So millions of acres of lands were reserved in government ownership “. . . for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flow, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the citizens of the United States. . .”6

Then, in 1970, the environmental movement was launched with the national observance of Earth Day. The remnants of the White Pine policies of 250 years ago, the forest reserve policies of Teddy Roosevelt, the alphabet agencies of the depression years, and the “emergency” controls of the Second World War had evolved into a mixture of regulatory commissions, economic controls and court decisions that gave the federal government the power to control virtually every facet of our economy.

But many individuals still resisted. They insisted that they still owned their land and could do with it what they chose, so long as their use did not injure a neighbor.

The authoritarians, those people who are unable to distinguish a natural order in a society not centrally directed, captured the environmental movement as a means by which they could extend the power of government over the remaining sectors of our society which were until then relatively free.

The Environmental Handbook

The Environmental Handbook, Prepared For The First National Environmental Teach-In (still available in bookstores on and near college campuses) is a manifesto for social change.

In order to come to grips with our environmental problems, wrote Garrett DeBell, editor of the book, “we must propose workable alternatives to our present patterns of living.”’ The admittedly antihumanistic and anticapitalistic bias of the environmental movement was clearly revealed.

The authors called for “an entirely new framework of land use policies,” including coastal commissions, state-wide zoning, and taxation to discourage the use of natural resources.

One goal expressed in the Environmental Handbook is “A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world.”8

The thrust of the book was summarized in the closing piece—a fable which advocates a return to the simple life of the stone-age Polynesian: “Only by following the example of the Polynesian can we survive. We must assert ourselves as individuals while submitting to nature.”9

Those who sought the extension of central power over all of our society joined those sincere individuals who are concerned with the illnesses of the environment, real or imagined.

The Call for Control

To reach the objectives described in their manifesto, the leaders of the environmental movement launched an attack on the people and the institutions that they believed should be controlled by government.

Since we have been told that we have a capitalistic society, then it was a simple step for them to suggest that the capitalistic system is to blame for all environmental ills. Therefore, we must abolish capitalism, or at least control it, so we can purify our environment. Industries and property owners, they reasoned, must be controlled by government.

To control the economy, it was necessary to launch an attack on businessmen and industrial leaders.w To control the use of natural resources, it was necessary to attack the timber, mining, and the energy industries. It was necessary to “prove” that in their greed for profits, those industries are destroying the resources and the environment around us all.

The emotional charges and statements made in order to convince the public that spaceship earth’s life-support systems are in immediate danger of destruction range from simple and deliberate obfuscation all the way to outright falsehoods.

It is amazing to me that such tactics, based on the morally bankrupt philosophy that the end justifies the means, have been so successful. Dozens of laws have been passed literally confiscating the rights of landowners to their property, in the name of environmental protection.

Federal and state environmental protection acts, coastal zone protection acts, air and water pollution control laws, forest practice acts, surface mining control acts, wild and scenic rivers acts, and endangered species acts are some of the laws passed since 1970 that authorize government agencies to impose their authority over the resource owners.

They have usurped the property owner’s control over his property. Ownership implies control. If the person holding a deed does not control the use of the property it describes, he does not truly own it.

Today, we are back where we were in the mid-1700s. In at least two states, a private timber owner must get permission from the state before he can harvest timber. Similar restrictive forest practice legislation has been considered in other states and in Congress.

On both the Federal and State levels, government has the ultimate control over nearly all natural resources. Since all material wealth, and all economic activity originates from natural resources, government has virtually total control of the economic activities of the people.

Capitalism Threatened

The environmental movement has been seized by those who would destroy capitalism in the United States, and establish some form of socialism in its place. It has gone a long way toward the completion of its objective.

Power has won over Liberty. Obfuscation has led to confiscation. Petr Beckmann has tried to explain why the environmental activists seek to destroy capitalism. He charges that the “Small Is Beautiful” cult led by the late E. F. Schumacher (author of the book by that name) and Amory Lovins is attempting to impose the kind of energy sources on today’s society that were used during the days of feudalism. Politicians and even many persons in academia and business are in ecstasy over their proposals. The common man—the consumer, the blue-collar worker—will be the big loser.

The environmental activists are a small, elite group who resent the common man, “for he is crowding `their’ highways, beaches, national parks, airlines,” wrote Beckmann. “They resent the free enterprise system because it lets people buy and do what they want to, when they really should buy and do what they ought to. And what they ought to do should be planned by the tone-setters who know what is good for the people.

“The influential social position of this elite, then, is threatened by the mass prosperity that is bred by technology and free enterprise,” said Beckmann.11

Dr. H. Peter Metzger has built a good case to show that the environmentalists are deliberately setting about to create the shortages of energy and other natural resources that they have predicted, and that they are being successful in their efforts. They have virtually stopped all nuclear power plant licensing, new coal leasing, water developments, new development on federal lands, and new industry (the latter through air pollution control requirements) .12

Obfuscation and confiscation have frustrated the normal economic activities of basic industries engaged in converting natural resources to consumer goods.

Restoring Private Ownership

The history of mankind has shown that the highest levels of civilization and the highest standards of living have been achieved under conditions of individual freedom to make economic decisions and to own and control property. To retain that freedom, we must restore the prerogative of the private owners of natural resources to allocate the use of those resources through the marketplace.

You, the reader, may by now wonder what can we do about it? What is the outlook for the future?

We have hard times ahead. The authoritarians have already nearly accomplished their goal, but in spite of it, I am optimistic for the long range future. There are many hopeful signs, though we must search for them.

There is increasing recognition among consumers that most of our current economic ills—inflation, energy shortages, and the like—can be blamed on the interventions of government.

While the trend toward authoritarian controls over natural resources and their use has been relentless in its advance, there are some signs of relaxation of controls in other segments of the economy, mainly in the transportation and communications industries. Deregulation of important industries is being seriously discussed, and the first steps in that direction have been taken.



ECONOMIC CONTROL is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for. Central planning means that the economic problem is to be solved by the community instead of by the individual; but this involves that it must also be the community, or rather its representatives, who must decide the relative importance of the different needs.

F. A. HAYEK, The Road to Serfdom


Those steps are the result of the rapid growth of the libertarian movement, and its improving ability to raise the issues of public regulation before the people, and explain the inevitable results. Increasing numbers of writers, scholars and organizations are contributing to greater public realization of the benefits of individual freedom from government regulation.

Only a few writers within the libertarian movement have focused their attention on the problems of resources and their use. But the foundation is being formed, and when applied by thinking people to natural resource problems, there will inevitably be an impact.

Some pessimists believe that it is too late—that we have already gone so far down that road to centralized control that we will not be able to return to a free economy. But I donot agree. Progress in any area is never steady, but comes in spurts. Rapid progress may be made at one time, then it slows or may even appear to be in reverse, as it does at this moment. But it is never too late to get back on course.

Changes in public opinion and hence in the direction society takes can be amazingly sudden.

Back in Colonial America, in October, 1760, sixty-three merchants banded together to oppose the renewal of general writs of assistance, which authorized customs officials to break into warehouses, homes, businesses, or board ships to search for contraband, without the formality of showing any evidence that they might find it.

The merchants hired James Otis to represent them in court. Otis went beyond the narrow legal defense, and based his arguments on constitutional grounds and on the inherent rights of British subjects.

He based his major argument on the statement of early seventeenth century Chief Justice Coke, that “when an act of Parliament is against common right and reason… the common law will control it and adjudge such act to be void.”

Otis declared: “An act against the Constitution is void; an act against natural equity is void; and if an act of Parliament should be made . . . it would be void.”

Otis lost his day in court, but he became the leader of the new Popular party, or “Smugglers party.”13

Only 16 years later, July 4, 1776, a group of citizens, gathered in Philadelphia, declared that all men are free, and that the colonies were independent from Great Britain.

It is not too late. We are well on the way toward the creation of a better understanding of how a free society works, and toward the creation of that society.



‘Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived In Liberty, Vol. I (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975), p. 9.

‘Percy L. Greaves, Jr., Mises Made Easier: A Glossal), for Ludwig von Mises’ HUMAN ACTION (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Free Market Books), p. 89.

2For a discussion of mercantilist restrictions in Colonial America, see Rothbard, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 205-214.

‘Rothbard, op. cit., Vol. III, pp. 37-40. Rothbard describes British attempts to enforce mercantilistic laws, and the reaction of various colonies from pp. 37 to 67. For a more detailed discussion of Britain’s forest policies in the Colonies, see Pine Trees and Politics—The Naval Stores and Forest Policy in Colonial New England, 1691-1775, by Joseph J. Malone (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964).

‘John Philpot Curran, Speech Upon the Right of Election (1790).

‘U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Principal Laws Relating to the Establishment and Administration of the National Forests and to Other Forest Service Activities, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, Rev. 1964), “Organic Administration Act of 1897,” PP. 63-66.

‘Garrett DeBell, ed., The Environmental Handbook, Prepared for the First National Environmental Teach-In, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), p. xv.

‘Ibid., p. 331.

‘Ibid., p. 344.

“For a good discussion of these tactics, see “The Liberal Mentality and the Malpractice Mess,” by Patricia S. Coyne, Imprimis, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, Vol. 5., No. 10.

“Petr Beckmann, “Economics as if SOME People Mattered,” Reason, October, 1978, p. 31.

“H. Peter Metzger, “The Coercive Utopians: Their Hidden Agenda,” a speech before the American College of Nuclear Medicine, April 28, 1978, printed in the Denver Post, April 30, 1978.

“Rothbard, op. cit., Vol. III, p. 37f